A generalization useful to understanding the piano market is that pianos can be divided into two types, Performance Grade and Consumer Grade, both of which are necessary to meet the needs of the wide variety of piano buyers.
Performance-grade pianos generally have several of the following attributes:
- They are built to a single high standard, almost without regard to cost, and the price charged reflects whatever it takes to build such a piano and bring it to market.
- A greater proportion of the labor required to build them is in the handwork involved in making custom refinements to individual instruments, often with fanatical attention to detail.
- Most are made in relatively small quantities by firms that have been in business for generations, often under the ownership of the same family. As a result, many have achieved almost legendary status, and are often purchased as much for their prestige value as for their performance.
- These are the instruments most likely to be called into service when the highest performance level is required, particularly for classical music.
- Most performance-grade pianos are made in Europe or the United States.
Performance-grade pianos are divided here into three subcategories, based on our perception of their reputation in both the musical and technical spheres of the piano business. The first subcategory is reserved for a few brands whose prestige figures prominently in their value. Of course, this prestige is based in large part on their extremely high quality, but marketing success and historical accident also play important roles in the reputations of these and other high-end brands. Also, preferences among performance-grade pianos in general are greatly dependent on musical taste in tone and touch. For these reasons, a number of brands in the second subcategory have as devoted a following as those in the first and, practically speaking, are probably just as good despite not having as much prestige associated with their names. The brands in the third subcategory are considered runners-up; however, most of these are also considerably less expensive, and may be a better value when the highest levels of quality or prestige are not needed.
Consumer-grade pianos are built to be sold at a particular price, and adjustments to (i.e., compromises in) materials, workmanship, and method and location of manufacture are made to meet that price. Most are mass-produced in Asia, with less in the way of custom refinement of individual instruments.
Consumer-grade pianos are subcategorized here mostly, but not entirely, by price. As mentioned earlier, in the current piano market, price is not a perfect indicator of technical or musical quality. However, price becomes a better indicator of quality when quality is understood to include all factors that consumers value — not only an instrument’s performance, but also the brand’s reputation and its track record for durability, reliability, warranty service, and resale value. This is especially relevant for consumer-grade pianos, where purchasers often are more interested in these other factors than in the instrument’s performance. It also means, however, that some brands may be rated a little higher or lower than they would be if rated on musical performance alone. In a few cases we’ve made small adjustments when we felt that considerations of price alone seriously under- or overvalued a brand.
As can be expected, upper-level consumer-grade pianos generally have premium components and better performance than lower-level instruments. The entry-level models are basic, no-frills pianos suitable for beginners and casual users, but which a conscientious student may outgrow in a few years. As piano quality in general improves, the distinctions between levels become more subtle and difficult to discern.